Prior to beginning this assignment, I had already found a passionate interest in theology, primarily the logical historical analysis of the Old Testament. I had read several books on the topic, but still had a thirst for more knowledge. With that said, my preceding assumptions predominantly consisted of skepticism towards the religious interpretation of the Old Testament. I believed that Exodus 20 was a prime example of the religious establishment interpreting an ancient text as to be divine. I felt that the Ten Commandments were nothing more then a moral code of antiquity, established as an ethical compass by spiritual leaders in a religious society.
Exodus 20 is a hot button topic in today’s polarized political climate. Conservatives want the Ten Commandments displayed in all schools and Liberals argue that it’s a violation of the separation of church and state. With this debate not likely to reach a compromise in the near future, I feel that the scholarly education of this chapter and the Old Testament in general, is needed to advance this quarrel beyond petty mud-slinging.
Contrary to sectarian belief, the much theorized author of Exodus is not believed to have been Moses. Instead, the consensus is that the text is a mixed bag of penned interpretations, consisting of the Yahwist (J writer), Priestly (P writer), and Elohist (E writer), with the E writer considered the primary architect of the book. Although we can hypothesize based upon the literal thumbprints written into the text, it is impossible to determine the definitive author of Exodus 20. Even the date of origin causes significant debate amongst experts. While it’s known that the final text of Exodus was edited sometime in the fifth century BCE. Many critics argue that the covenant with Moses on Mount Sinai, which was said to have occurred around 1200 BCE, didn’t become important in Israel until the seventh century BCE (Armstrong, A history of God…22-23). Which would both call in too question the validity of Moses’ encounter, and eliminate the JE writers from consideration as possible authors of the text. Regardless of its textual genealogy or factual accuracy, the Ten Commandments continue to have an impact on society some 3000 years later.
Before I delve into the text itself, I feel that it is best served to provide a brief description of the social and religious climate during the period the Pentateuch was being formed. During this three hundred year period, a battle of religious supremacy raged between the progressive Israelites, who worshiped the god YHWH, and the traditional pagans, who worshipped various territorial gods including the high god EL. While both the Israelites and gentiles recognized the existence of multiple gods, the Israelites formed a covenant with Yahweh at the urging of Moses during their escape from oppression in Egypt. He claimed that the god YHWH had spoken to him as a burning bush, while Moses was in exile for his role in the death of a guard of the Pharaoh. He explained to his people that Yahweh had promised to set them free if they agree to a covenant proclaiming YHWH as their only god of worship. However, scholars continue to debate the knowledge that Moses and his people had of the Elohim YHWH. In the scrolls of the Yahwist, he traces the worship of YHWH as originating from the grandson of Adam. The Priestly writer, however, refutes this claim in the sixth century BCE by suggesting that the Israelites had never heard of YHWH before the divine conversation. In the P writings, he makes Yahweh explain to Moses that he really was the same god as the God of Abraham. Signifying that this is a controversial notion, Yahweh tells Moses that Abraham had called him “El Shaddai” (El of the Mountain), and did not know the name Yahweh (Armstrong 14). Despite the discrepancies in semantics, Yahweh was the only worshipped god of the Israelites following the Exodus and would proclaim so...